Alexandria and the Ptolemaic Dynasty
After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Egypt came under the reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled the country for three centuries. They didn’t use Memphis as their base, however. Instead, they ruled from the capital city of Alexandria, the port city founded and designed (and named) by the Macedonian conqueror.
Ptolemy I Soter (“Saviour”), the first ruler of the dynasty, was Alexander’s childhood friend and general. He brought Alexander’s body back to Alexandria to be entombed, and emerged victorious in the succession war that followed Alexander’s untimely death. Ptolemy proclaimed himself pharaoh of Egypt and ruled from the city where his friend was buried. Ptolemy I is now remembered as the creator of the Library of Alexandria, the largest library of the ancient world.
According to historians, the Ptolemaic pharaohs, sequestered in this Greek city in the midst of the African country they rule, remained Greek in language and traditions. Cleopatra VII Philopator (“Father-Loving”, a common royal epithet among the Hellenistic monarchs), the last Ptolemy to rule Egypt, was the only member of the dynasty to venture out of Alexandria and who took the time to learn and speak the native tongue of her constituents.
Rise of the Romans
The Ptolemaic Dynasty have had early relations with the Romans before the Romans took absolute control of Egypt. To illustrate, Ptolemy VI was aided by Rome during the siege of the Seleucid king Atiochus IV.
It wasn’t until Ptolemy XI Alexander II’s reign when Rome’s control over Egyptian political affairs became more overt. In 88 BC, Ptolemy XI gave both Egypt and Cyprus to Rome, and he was put on the throne by the Roman general Cornelius Sulla. Rome at this time was starting to grow in power, absorbing the Greek states in its path. The Ptolemies allied with the Romans and paid tribute in the form of grain and other resources in order to retain their power in Egypt.
The Ptolemies and the Romans became even more intertwined during the reign of Cleopatra. Cleopatra VII rose to the Egyptian throne in 51 BC, co-reigning with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, until he and his advisers stripped her of the title of pharaoh and forced her into exile. Cleopatra allied with Julius Caesar to defeat her brother and regain the throne, which she succeeded in doing with the help of his forces. She and Caesar became lovers as well, and she bore him a son, Caesarion.
After Caesar’s assassination in Rome in 44 BC, Rome split between supporters of Caesar’s co-consul Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Octavian (Gaius Octavius Thurinus). Cleopatra allied herself with Mark Antony, who also became her lover and husband. Their combined forces clashed with Octavian’s troops in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian emerged victorious, allowing him to consolidate his power, and Cleopatra and Mark Antony retreated back to Alexandria to recuperate and plan their next move.
Octavian marched into Alexandria and claimed Egypt as a Roman province in 30 BC. Mark Antony’s troops began defecting to Octavian’s camp as the young military leader solidified his claim to the Roman throne. Sensing his imminent defeat, Mark Antony attempted suicide by falling on his sword. He survived long enough to be taken to Cleopatra to her mausoleum where she had sequestered herself, but died soon after.
Knowing she would be captured and publicly humiliated by Octavian, Cleopatra chose to commit suicide. Some historians claim she did this by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp (Egyptian cobra).
Cleopatra and Caesar’s 17-year-old son, Caesarion, nominally succeeded his mother to the throne as Ptolemy XV Caesar, but he was executed by Octavian after 11 days. With him died the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Octavian became Emperor Augustus (“revered”), and Egypt fell under the rule of the Roman Empire.
The Romans built a city-fortress they called Babylon on the east bank of the Nile River, the site of present-day Cairo. Babylon became the headquarters of Augustus’ garrison of three legions.
Egypt remained under Roman control for six centuries, and its history became irrevocably entwined with the faith of the Roman Empire. Christianity arrived in Egypt and spread by the second century. When the Roman Empire declined and the Byzantine Empire took its place, Emperor Constantine I governed Egypt from Constantinople.
Early in the 7th Century, Muslim forces ventured out of the Arabian peninsula and began a series of conquests that brought down the Sassanid Empire of Persia and took away precious territories from the Byzantines. ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ of the Rashidun Caliphate and his troops entered Egypt in 639 and took the Byzantine garrison cities of Pelusium and Belbeis.
In 640, they moved to the larger city of Babylon, where the Byzantines were better prepared to repel invading forces. While Pelusium fell after two months and Belbeis fell after a month, the Muslim forces had to surround Babylon for seven months and endure heavy fighting and negotiations that went nowhere. At the end of another failed negotiation, ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ finally decided to scale the wall of the city-fortress in a night assault in order to forcibly take the city.
Babylon fell in December 640. Alexandria was captured in 641, and the whole of Egypt fell under the rule of the Caliphate in 646.
Al-Fustat and Al-Qāhirah
‘Amr wanted to retain Alexandria as the capital of Muslim Egypt, but the Caliph Umar suggested to establish a new capital further inland to protect it from the flooding of the Nile and from Byzantine naval attacks. ‘Amr chose the area north of Babylon where he and his men had pitched their tents, hence the name Misr Al-Fustat, roughly “city of the tents”. ‘Amr built a mosque named after himself, the first mosque to be built in all of Africa. (Cairo will eventually earn the nickname “the city of a thousand minarets” due to the large number of mosques built inside the city under Arab rule.)
Al-Fustat grew in prosperity and remained the capital of Muslim Egypt for 500 years until the Fatimids invaded the country. The Fatimid Caliphate, originating from what is now Algeria, claimed they were descendants of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and controlled an empire in North Africa and the Middle East from the 9th to the early 12th Century.
Led by the general Jawhar, they invaded Egypt in 969 and established a walled city named Al-Qāhirah (“The Victorious”) or Cairo in 973 to serve as the enclave of the Fatimid Caliph. For 200 years after Cairo’s founding as the imperial capital, Egypt’s administrative centre remained in Al-Fustat. However, when the Crusaders began a series of invasions into Egypt, Al-Fustat was set on fire in 1168 to prevent its capture.